By JOHN McCOY
EAST LYNN - Stung by an electric current, the arm-long fish darted to the lake's surface, where a man with a long-handled net scooped it up.
It sometimes takes an angler 1,000 casts to hook and land a muskellunge, but biologists can put lots of muskies in the boat with a flip of a switch. That's precisely what Division of Natural Resources crews have been doing on Wayne County's East Lynn Lake.
It's called "electrofishing," and it's the standard way for biologists to survey fish populations. The current stuns the fish just long enough for biologists to net them, tag them, log them and release them.
DNR crews have been cruising East Lynn's shallows since last year, capturing and tagging muskies as part of an ongoing study. Jeff Hansbarger, the agency's district fisheries biologist, estimated that 100 to 120 muskies have been tagged so far.
The study stems, in large part, from muskie anglers' desire to see a 40-inch minimum size limit put in place at East Lynn. The current size limit for the lake is 30 inches.
"For about 5 years, people at our sectional meetings have been asking for a 40-inch limit here," Hansbarger said. "They've said that other waters have them, but those waters are a long drive from the southern and southwestern counties, and they'd like to have a trophy muskie lake in their part of the state."
Before Hansbarger decides to recommend such a regulation, he wants hard, scientific data that indicate a 40-inch limit would in fact produce larger muskies - and that it wouldn't have adversely effect the lake's bass population.
"East Lynn is largemouth-bass lake that has muskies stocked into it," Hansbarger said. "Folks hold a lot of bass tournaments here, almost every week. Some bass fishermen believe muskies eat a lot of bass. Studies show that isn't the case, but the belief persists. So we have to take that into consideration, too."
Muskies don't appear to reproduce in East Lynn, so all of the fish Hansbarger captures were stocked there by the DNR. He wants to determine whether the stocking rate is too high, too low or just right.
"We can tell by our capture rates that there's a pretty good population of muskies here," he said. "During our electrofishing surveys, we generally capture 2.5 to 3.5 fish per hour. We want to see how our stocking rate effects the catch rate. We want anglers to be able to catch muskies, but we want to make sure the numbers aren't excessive."
He also wants to find out why so few of the muskies he captures reach the 40-inch "trophy" size anglers tend to desire. On a recent survey, he had his crew turned up seven muskies in a two-hour span. All the fish were males, and all of them ranged between 32 and 36 inches in length.
"We don't know if that's a function of the lake's ability to grow fish, or if it's because most of the muskies that reach the current 30-inch limit get taken out before they have a chance to get really big," Hansbarger said.
To determine whether slow growth rates are to blame, Hansbarger clips a leading edge off each captured muskie's anal or pelvic fin.
"We look at a cross-section of the fins' rays and count growth rings, just like you would in a tree," he explained. "The fin clippings tell us how old the fish is when it was captured. When the fish is recaptured, we can take another clipping and see how much it grew since the initial capture."
Biologists can tell when fish have previously been captured because each captured muskie gets an electronic tag implanted under the skin next to its dorsal fin. A quick check with a scanner reveals the tag's presence.
The tags, called PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags, are an eighth of an inch in diameter and half an inch long. Biologists use a large hypodermic needle to inject the tags into the fish while they're being measured. Each tag carries a unique code, so Hansbarger can check his records to see when the fish was initially captured and how long it was at the time.
By this fall, Hansbarger and his crews will have two full years' worth of data to study. He hopes the findings will help reduce the current friction between East Lynn's bass and muskie anglers.
"Diet studies have shown that muskies don't have a huge impact on bass populations," he said. "East Lynn has lots of shad and lots of spotted suckers, both of which are preferred prey for muskies.
"Our study seems to indicate that muskie size seems to be hanging in the lower range. But at the same time, muskie numbers are OK despite our having to cut down on stockings due to hatchery problems."
Hansbarger said data from the study will determine whether DNR officials propose a 40-inch minimum limit.
"We want to make sure that if we raise the size limit, the muskies will actually be able to reach that size," he said. "We think they can. I've seen pictures of 46-inch muskies from East Lynn. But until we get hard data of our own, we won't know for sure."